Monday, August 23, 2010

The Trip: The Train

The first portion of my summer was spent (apart from swim lessons) figuring out how I could take this crazy trip I had in mind. I wanted to go to NY to visit family and see the lake and I wanted to go to Chicago and see Smith's sister & brother-in-law. I wanted to see my Aunt & Uncle in Philly.

I spent a lot of time going through lots of options, flying here, driving there, flying over there and back... I even went through a long spell of planning on driving the whole way (Mississippi! Graceland! Kentucky?) I would stop and see just about everyone I knew between here and there too! It was going to take a lot of time. Smith, unfortunately couldn't join us for the trip due to work (for which we are always thankful) so it was going to be just me and the boys and a lot of driving.

Despite numerous people saying "Oh! How exciting!" the more common reply was "Oh! How crazy!"

I brushed aside the comments and kept planning. I didn't see reason until a series of gentle prodding questions from Sinda came up. Questions like:
"How many hours a day do you plan to drive?"
"So how long do you think it will take?"
"How old is your youngest again? Will he do well for that long in a car, day after day?"
"How do you plan on keeping them amused if a dvd player is out of the question?"
"How do you feel being the sole driver AND the sole parent for this entire trip?"

so. Plan #4,021 was hatched instead: I would take the train to Chicago. Then I would rent a car and drive off to see my various relatives in NY & PA and then drive back to Chicago. Then I could museum visit and frolic before flying home, courtesy of ye olde Uncle Tommy's airline (we could get buddy passes and fly standby for free!) Now I was getting excited.

The morning I had been planning for what felt like months had finally arrived. We boarded our train in Austin, just behind the YMCA and set off, spying MOPAC out our window as we traveled North. We passed the school and thought of the number of times we've been on the other side, watching the train and hearing it roar past. We were now part of that roar. It's exciting.

Here is Jbird happily playing a game as our day gets underway.

The route from Austin to Chicago via Amtrak is 28+ HOURS, give or take. I have friends who were 24 hours LATE after a similar trip. So, I smartly booked us a sleeper car that would accommodate a family. We had more than ample room. It was on the bottom floor of the train car (each having 2 floors) and our berth was the width of the train; allowing a view out windows on both sides of the train. We had benches, seats and fold-down beds with ladders. The bathroom was a few steps down the hall and what you might expect on an airplane. The kids could stretch and wrestle and rest and read, build forts and play Cat Warriors until their hearts content, without bothering a soul but me. This was the only portion of our trip that I was able to read anything from the 2 books I brought. [The Learners by Chip Kidd.  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.]

We spend the entire day traveling through Texas. It was after we pulled up the blankets and turned out the light that we heard the conductor announce the next stop: Texarkana. The view out the window for the entire day pretty much looked like this:

Or this:

Here was a tiny bit of excitement, a Pullman train!

Our other bit of excitement was when J locked himself in the bathroom and couldn't work the handle to unlock it to come out. There was some sadness on his side of the door and lots of calm, comforting words from my side. The porter was very quick to free my little bird, who then hugged me and promptly ran down the train and locked me out of our berth. Thankfully the older child saw reason and let me in, without bribery.

When we woke up the next morning, we were rewarded with this gorgeous view:

St. Louis by morning... ah. We totally missed Arkansas. Sorry ya'll. Next time.

Overall the train was a very pleasant way to travel. Sometimes when I take a plane trip it all feels very surreal. I step into a small metal tube and take off to land, well, it could be anywhere. Then I get off and have an adventure for awhile, then I step back onto that metal tube and I come home. I can't help but wonder "did that adventure really happen?"

I did experience some small moments of isolation too, although that was more due to my travel companions than the train. In the dining car they would seat you as space allowed, one would often share tables with strangers. I could hear many around me strike up conversations about where they were coming from and where they were going and the usual small talk. Because we were a party of 3, we were seated by ourselves, with just ourselves to make small talk. By dinner time, I was eyeballing some wine...

The train itself was clean, comfortable and safe. The people were friendly and there was no rush. The food offerings, in that special dining car, were varied enough to please a small array of tastes. But by the end of the trip the one menu for a breakfast, a lunch, a dinner, another breakfast, and another lunch, was worn out. They also ran out of some dishes and if you had the spinach salad yesterday, you may not be gung ho for it being your only option today. Here was Nbear at our last meal.

We were soon as happy as this little guy though in Chicago.

Our train was early, but the bags took forever. An easy drive to Aunt Alex's and we were sitting on her porch looking at the trees and I was drinking a grown-up drink and making small talk with other grown-ups. The cicadas were LOUD and the night was clear and cool.


Lisa said...

I'm so glad you listened to Sinda. I was worried. The drive you envisioned did NOT sound like a vacation to me.

Great post! I can't wait to read the rest of the story.

Lisa said...

Man, I swear I left a comment.

Vetmommy said...

Sounds amazing! So glad you took the train! Brilliant plan. I thought the dining car options were also pretty good, but definitely would be boring on meal #6. And I only went to Ft Worth, so we had but one meal.

Pearl said...

I LOVE the train! (And I don't think it was a crazy idea at all. Sounds like a great time.)